Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Swing Ye Noel!

By Derrick Bang • Originally published, in abridged form, in The Davis Enterprise, 12.11.14

[Web master’s note: Northern California film critic Derrick Bang — still the eldest, youngest and only son of this site’s jazz guru, Ric Bang — has surveyed the holiday jazz scene for 19 years, with lengthy columns that just keep growing. Check out previous columns by clicking on the CHRISTMAS label below.]

When it comes to holiday music, the generational tidal shift is massive.

At one end of the beach, we have those who listen to Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby. At the other end, Celine Dion, Josh Groban and Sheryl Crow. The middle ground is occupied by Vince Guaraldi, James Taylor and Mannheim Steamroller, and then we have the contingent of folks who find the very concept of Christmas music too corny for words.

Well, feh. That latter group simply isn’t listening to the right Christmas music.

Nor is the situation helped by the Balkanization of the other cliques. No matter where you shop, party or land on the radio dial — terrestrial or web — there’s no denying a certain sameness to what’s being played.

Which is where this annual column comes in.

My survey of new holiday jazz has been a tradition since 1997, during which time I’ve seen this rather specialized genre wax, wane and wax again. I’ve enjoyed efforts by heavy hitters such as Wynton Marsalis, Dave Brubeck, Diana Krall and Harry Connick Jr. I’ve endured a seemingly endless tsunami of puerile swill washed ashore by the so-called “smooth jazz” movement.

I’ve also been heartened by how the Internet has broadened our access to regional artists who previously would have remained unknown to mainstream listeners. You’ll find several of those below: a reminder that talented musicians aren’t confined to major labels on both coasts.

So, the next time one of your holiday party guests wrinkles her nose at the mere prospect of seasonal tunes, plug a couple of these albums into your playing device of choice!


Mack Avenue Records is a relatively youthful label, having been founded in 1999, but it has accumulated an impressive roster of jazz stars during that short time. Roughly 20 have gotten together for It’s Christmas on Mack Avenue, which ranges from bop to blues, frenetic combo work to gentle solos.

The album roars out of the gate with a peppy, hard-bop approach to “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,” which features sassy solos on trumpet and piano by, respectively, Sean Jones and Orrin Evans. At the other end of the tempo meter, bassist Christian McBride delivers a gorgeous introduction to “Silent Night,” after which pianist Christian Sands takes the melodic lead, joined by drummer Ulysses Owens Jr., favoring quiet brushes. The result is peaceful portrait jazz, and you can practically see the new-fallen snow.

Pianist Aaron Diehl and bassist David Wong are the stars of an inventive cover of “Sleigh Ride,” which alternates between a slow, percussive two-beat and an eyebrow-raising double-time assault that demonstrates Wong’s amazing chops.

Vibraphonist Warren Wolf takes the lead on a truly lovely reading of “Carol of the Bells”; I only wish the equally fine supporting bassist, who comps and occasionally covers melody, had been identified. Wolf then teams up with Diehl for an equally sweet reading of “Christmas Time Is Here,” granting that Guaraldi classic a slightly melancholy atmosphere.

The mood turns slightly mysterious with Tia Fuller’s sax take on an intriguing cover of “The Little Drummer Boy,” the traditional pa-rum-pum-pum-pum backdrop replaced by lively percussive work from Kim Thompson and Khalil Kwame Bell.

The Django-esque Hot Club of Detroit can be an acquired taste, and I’m not sure the accordion lead on Guaraldi’s “Skating” evokes the desired image of children enjoying the delights of a frozen pond. Similarly, Diehl’s solo stride piano handling of John Williams’ “Christmas Star” — the primary theme from the film Home Alone 2 — veers a bit too much into “free jazz” territory, with the melody left far behind.

The Christian McBride romps through a droll original titled “Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto,” with the entire Mack Avenue roster contributing to gentle requests that the Jolly Red Elf include inner-city stops such as the Bronx, Jacksonville, Fla. and ... Palo Alto, Calif. It’s a cute call-and-response tune, with pleasant echoes of the Louis Armstrong classic, “Christmas Night in Harlem.”

The album includes a few vocals, most delightfully Cyrille Aimée’s Calypso-hued “Let it Snow,” and Sachal Vasandani’s swinging strut through “Winter Wonderland,” to some finger-snapping bass and piano accompaniment.

I often rate the likely quality of the impending holiday jazz season on the basis of the first CD to hit my eager hands; based on this Mack Avenue release, things looked quite good.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Adam Schroeder: Let's

Capri Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Let's

Reed instruments have been featured in jazz groups since the genre began. The clarinet was king in the beginning, when icons such as Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw gained their fame on that “horn.” As bands grew larger, entire reed sections were introduced, consisting of alto and tenor saxophones, often a pair of each. In many cases, one of those musicians also would double on the baritone sax. That big instrument eventually became a staple, and the reed section grew from four to five members. 

Half a dozen individuals became stars with that big horn during the big band years: Harry Carney (with Duke Ellington’s unit), Cecil Payne (John Coltrane), Serge Chaloff (Woody Herman), Gerry Mulligan (Elliot Lawrence), Leo Parker (Coleman Hawkins) and Jack Nimitz (Herman and Kenton). 

As time passed, we began to hear from the next generation of artists who chose the baritone sax as their primary instrument. Adam Schroeder is one of the newest, and many consider him to be one of the best. Because of the horn’s size and its musical range, it’s difficult to play while producing a clean tone. Schroeder has no trouble in that regard; he gets a gorgeously full bodied, almost sweet sound throughout the full register.

While swinging like crazy.

Schroeder owes much of his success to Clark Terry, who first heard the newcomer at his Institute of Jazz Studies.  In addition to Terry, Schroeder has worked with Louie Bellson, Ray Charles, Diane Krall, Sting, John Pizzarelli, Chris Botti and Bob Mintzer, to name just a few.

This is the second album released under his own name. Schroeder is supported by guitarist Anthony Wilson and — in my view — the best rhythm duo working today: bassist John Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton. This use of a guitar, rather than a piano, really helps move the group. 

Five of the 11 tracks are Schroeder originals; the rest are jazz standards such as Duke Pearson’s “Hello, Bright Sunflower,” Sam Koslo’s “In the Middle of a Kiss” and Benny Carter’s “Southside Samba.”

This is a great, swinging album by a quartet of masters.

Tommy Smith and Brian Kellock: Whispering of the Stars

Spartacus Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Whispering of the Stars

Much of the finest jazz is performed as ballads, by instruments and voices played at audio levels just above a whisper; such is the case with this album.

Tommy Smith (sax) and Brian Kellock (piano) are from Scotland, a country not well known on these shores for its jazz prowess. And yet Scotland has its icons just like many other countries, and these two artists have a world-wide reputation as masters of their instruments, and pioneers of overseas jazz. Indeed, many artists from the States are well aware of their excellence, and have worked with and raved about them.

Smith’s stepfather, a rabid jazz fan, was instrumental in getting young Tommy started on sax when he was just 12 years old. His early years were spent playing with groups in Scotland, and then one of his teachers persuading him to attend Boston’s famed  Berklee College of Music. Smith was only 18 when Chick Corea suggested that he join a group led by Berklee vice president Gary Burton; that unit toured the world, and just four years later Smith signed a contract with Blue Note Records. He recorded with many American stars from then on, and has a massive discography.

Kellock, one of the UK’s premium pianists, also has worked with many famed American jazz artists. As would be expected, he and Smith also have worked and recorded together countless times.

This album contains almost two dozen songs from Great American Songbook composers: Duke Ellington, Hoagy Carmichael, Vernon Duke, Harold Arlen, Burt Bacharach, Glenn Miller, Jimmy McHugh, Vincent Youmans, T. Monk and many others. If you grew up during the big band years, you grew up with this music. It’s beautifully done by two absolute masters. Smith’s work on both tenor and soprano sax is gorgeous; his tone is as clear and pure as I’ve ever heard. He plays softly and delicately, with little vibrato. Most important, no matter what the tempo — mostly ballads here — he plays true jazz.

Kellock supports him beautifully, and his own solo work is superb. As a tight duo, their many years together are quite obvious.

If you yearn to re-visit to the music of your youth, performed by two absolute masters, this disc must be added to your library.

Mark Buselli: Untold Stories

OA2 Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Untold Stories

For several years now, “jazz” has become an increasingly misused term. If you look it up in a dictionary, or Google it, you’ll note that every definition includes words like improvisation, syncopation, rhythm, beat and other terms that describe an American art form dating back to the early 20th century. There are, many genres of jazz: Dixieland, straight-ahead, bop, modern and fusion, to name but a few, and they all have one thing in common: They swing. Otherwise, it isn’t jazz.
To borrow the title of that famed 1931 Duke Ellington composition, It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing. 
That doesn’t mean the music always has to roar; some of the most beautiful jazz heard is performed at balladic tempos. It also can be played at different time signatures — straight time, 2/4, 3/4 and so forth — because you can swing at any signature.
Granted, it’s not always easy to characterize jazz ... but to paraphrase an observation frequently made about another art form, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I hear it!”
Why this preface? Because far too much of the music being played — and marketed — these days claims to be jazz, but absolutely isn’t. Rest assured, though: Readers of this blog can be certain that everything discussed here is well and truly jazz
Untold Stories, presented by Mark Buselli and his quintet, is definitely jazz. The talented musicians — Buselli (trumpet) is joined by Danny Walsh (sax), Steve Allee (piano), Jeremy Allen (bass) and Steve Houghton (drums) — also are associated with universities and schools in teaching positions. The name artists with whom they’ve worked would cover an entire page; their experience includes both small and large groups in the jazz and classical fields, and they’re also prodigious composers and arrangers.
Six of these seven tunes are originals by members of the group; Buselli did two, with four from Allee. The only neo-standard is the seldom-heardAngelica,” which came from a session Ellington shared with John Coltrane. One of the charts — “Claude” — is done as a ballad; the rest are mid- to up-tempo tunes that make it impossible to keep your fingers and feet at rest. The rhythm section is as tight as they come, the result of these guys having played together over a period of years. The solo work is thoughtful and masterful.

This is the way a lot of jazz used to sound, and this album proves that a lot of artists Out There still care about that very thing.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Pat Hall: Time Remembered — The Music of Bill Evans

Unseen Rain Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Time Remembered: The Music of Bill Evans

Every jazz fan remembers pianist Bill Evans; not nearly as many know about Pat Hall. Well, Hall is something of an anachronism: He didn’t grow up in a musical family, although his father — who worked for GM in Flint, Michigan — had an 8-track player in his car, on which he played a lot of Pink Floyd, which young Pat grew to love. He also was lucky enough to attend a relatively advanced public school system, which made it possible for kids to learn to play musical instruments; his choice was a trombone.

At age 16, Hall attended a summer session at Boston’s famed Berklee School of Music, where he was exposed to records by J.J. Johnson. That set his future course.

Ornette Coleman was another huge influence, and Hall’s initial recording session was a tribute to that icon. This new album, as the title makes clear, is a remembrance of Evans and his music. The quartet is somewhat unusual, in that the usual piano and acoustic bass have been replaced by Greg Lewis’ Hammond B3 organ and Marvin Sewell’s guitar. They’re joined by drummer Mike Campenni, with Hall on trombone. 

All seven tracks are tunes that Evans and his groups made famous, and four were composed by Evans: “Waltz for Debby,” “Know What I Mean?,” “Time Remembered” and “Peri’s Scope.” Evans’ famous bassist, Scott LaFaro, contributed “Gloria’s Step,” and the musical menus is completed with Rogers and Hart’s “Spring Is Here,” and Earl Zindars’ “Elsa.”

The instrumentation may be different, but the quality of the music — and the chops displayed by the musicians themselves — make this an excellent release. We all miss Evans and his groups, and it’s nice that releases like this are keeping his work alive.

Tim Hegarty: Tribute

Miles High Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Tribute

When good jazz musicians get together, you can almost always look forward to a swinging album. That’s certainly the case with this release, which features saxophonist Tim Hegarty. He’s not yet a name artist, but this album demonstrates that he’s well on the way. 

Hegarty grew up in a musical family, began playing at an early age, received his education at Miami University, the Manhattan School of Music, and the New School, and earned his master’s degree from Queens College.

During his early years he was good enough — and lucky enough — to learn from, and play with, luminaries such as Frank Foster, Gil Evans and the Mingus Big Band. Names like that provide the musical “keys to the city,” and Hegarty took full advantage.

Hegarty performs on both tenor and soprano sax on this album; his style is clean, straight-ahead, smooth and always swinging. He’s supported by some like-minded artists: Kenny Barron on piano, Rufus Reid on bass, and Carl Allen on drums. The excellent vibraphonist Mark Sherman also guests on half of the 10 tracks. 

The album title reflects Hegarty’s acknowledgement and appreciation of the past and present artists who have influenced him.

The musical menu include a couple of Hegarty originals, four charts from Jimmy Heath, and jazz standards from Frank Foster, George Coleman, Joe Henderson and T. Monk.

Hey, you just can’t miss with these cats!

Holly Hofmann: Low Life

Capri Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Low Life

Holly Hofmann is one of the finest flautists ever to have graced the musical stage. Of course she began her career in the classical genre, but she expanded into the field of jazz back in the early 1980s, and she followed that path to fame. She has worked with artists who are tops in the jazz world — far too many to list — and has created an extensive discography over the years, with more than a dozen highly rated albums. 

Most of Hoffmann’s previous releases feature her on the C flute, but she plays the alto flute exclusively for this album. That instrument’s range is more limited, but it compensates with a tone that’s more lush. 

The supporting cast includes her husband, Mike Wofford on piano, along with bassist John Clayton, drummer Jeff Hamilton and guitarist Anthony Wilson. These gentlemen are in the top echelon of the jazz world: Wofford has been well known from the 1960s, both as an accompanist for stars Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald, but also as a member of great bands fronted by Benny Carter, James Moody, Gerald Wilson and countless others. Hamilton, to many the finest drummer working today, has gained considerable fame with the Clayton/Hamilton Big Band; John Clayton is the Clayton in that same great group. Wilson frequently works with Diana Krall and numerous other name artists.  

All things considered, this group is the Rolls Royce in a fleet of other classic cars.

Four of the tunes from the album menu were composed by group members: “Lumiere de la Vie,” by Hofmann; “Jack of Hearts,” by Wilson; and “Touch the Fog” and “Cedar Would,” by Clayton. The familiar Ray Noble gem, “The Very Thought of You,” is particularly moving; and Mulgrew Miller’s “Soul-leo” swings quite nicely. 

All the charts are beautifully done; whatever the tempo, everything swings wonderfully. You’re in the hands of true pros.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Pete McGuinness Jazz Orchestra: Strength in Numbers

Summit Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Strength in Numbers

This unit is led by trombonist, composer and arranger Pete McGuinness, a staple in the New York City jazz scene. He’s another of this brave new jazz world’s well-educated musicians, with stints in the Hall High School Jazz program, in West Hartford, Ct.; college studies at the New England Conservatory of Music; then the University of Miami, for a bachelor’s degree; and finally the Manhattan School of Music, for a master’s degree. 

McGuinness has performed with name bands led by Maria Schneider, Lionel Hampton, Jimmy Heath and Woody Herman, and has served “in the pit” for numerous Broadway shows. He’s a prolific writer and arranger, having composed for many jazz artists and schools, as well as his own unit, featured in this release. Oh, yes; he’s also a teacher. 

This is another big, big band: five woodwinds, four trumpets, five trombones (including McGuinness) and the usual piano, bass and drums rhythm section. McGuinness composed six of these 10 tunes, and arranged all of them. The standards include Michel LeGrand’s “What Are You Doing the Rest ff Your Life?,” Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer,” and Raye/Depaul’s “You Don’t Know What Love Is.”  Two versions of the latter are included: one recorded for this album, and another from an earlier radio broadcast. It should be noted that McGuinness also is the vocalist on both, and his style is equivalent to that of Chet Baker: semi-scat. (Stay with your trombone, Pete.)

The only big bands operating these days are created by jazz artists who miss them as much as I do. McGuinness is one of those. And, as often is the case, there’s no shortage of musicians who feel the same way, so the catalytic leader never has trouble finding stellar artists to join the group. It’s often just to get together on their own time, to relax and enjoy. Once in awhile, though, the results are so great that others — musicians, teachers, producers, etc. — offer to fund the recording and distribution of a CD, to share with other like-minded folks. This release is the result of just such an effort. The contributors are too numerous to cite, but are included in the liner notes.

McGuinness’ jazz orchestra more that meets the necessary criteria. It swings wonderfully, the artists are superb, the section work and solos are terrific, and the arrangements are real movers.

Don’t miss this sensational piece of work.

Doc Stewart: Code Blue

Cannonball Jazz
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Code Blue

Great, swinging big bands are few and far between these days. A lot of water has passed beneath the bridge since we’ve heard groups that meet the standards set by Basie, Ellington, Gillespie, Mingus, Adderley, Ferguson, Corea, GRP and Grusin. Well, weep no more; Resuscitation, a big band led by Chris (Doc) Stewart, has arrived.
Stewart is a real doctor, and has practiced that art for more than 25 years. Before that, he lived in the musical world. He was the sixth of nine children, in a family where everyone played an instrument. Born in Anaheim, California, he moved to a farm in Illinois, then back to Anaheim when he was 12 (where, incidentally, he lived in a house just doors away from his future wife, Patty). He chose the alto sax as his horn, complementing with flute during his high school days. He won a talent contest at Disneyland, and played gigs during and after his high school years. 
He was good enough to work with Louie Bellson, Bill Watrous, Toshiko/Lew Tabakin and others. He and Patty were married in 1981, and for the next decade he lived two lives: playing jazz and earning a medical degree. Patty was instrumental in the success of the latter endeavor, and they recently celebrated their 33rd wedding anniversary. Doc currently practices in the ER section of the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona.
In his “spare” time, he spends hours transcribing the music of his favorite artists: all of Eddie Daniels’ solos from his To Bird, with Love LP, and all of Cannonball Adderley’s solos (the basis of Stewart’s 2005 release, Phoenix: A Tribute to Cannonball Adderley).
This new album is stunning. The big band consists of six woodwinds, six trumpets and flugelhorns, four trombones, piano/keyboard, bass and drums. Every member is a star in his own right; as just one example, Stewart and pianist Matt Catingub have played together for more than 30 years.
We begin here with the four movements of “Code Blue Suite,” written by Stewart and Tom Kubis; that vibrant wake-up call runs more than 20 minutes. The next 10 swingers consist of traditional charts used by the Cannonball Adderley Quintet and icons such as Kubis, Julian Adderley, Hal Galpar, Oscar Pettiford, Bobby Timmons and Charles Lloyd. The two American Songbook standards are Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight” and Hubbell’s “Poor Butterfly.” Most of the arrangements are by Stewart, Kubis and Catingub.

It all swings like crazy, and the solo work — whether by Stewart or other band members — is outstanding. I particularly enjoy the lines done by the entire woodwind sections, on “The Way You Look Tonight” and “Bohemia After Dark,” in the fashion of the old SuperSax band. All I can say is more ... more ... more!

Anthony Hadro: For Us the Living

Tone Rogue Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: For Us the Living

Anthony Hadro — who was born in Mexico City, moved to Brazil, and ultimately settled in Chicago — didn’t develop an interest in music until relatively late in life. His first instrument was the flute, but he ultimately settled on the baritone sax as his primary horn; he’s also fluent with the alto, tenor and both B-flat and low B-flat clarinets. As you listen to him, you’ll immediately notice the splendid tone achieved in all octaves of his baritone sax, which is the instrument (with a modicum of flute) that he uses on this release. 
Hadro attended the prestigious New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois, and New York City’s New School For Jazz and Contemporary Music; he was named salutatorian there in 2007, and soon thereafter toured with a jazz group containing several faculty members. He now teaches and tours with his own group, and with the Junior Mance Quintet.
Hadro’s quartet here also includes Carmen Staaf, a superior musician who won the Mary Lou Williams piano competition in 2009, and is the pianist in UCLA’s prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance. The other players are bassist Daniel Foose and drummer Matt Wilson. 
Hadro wrote six of these 10 compositions. Of the rest, “Sea of Tranquility” comes from Maria Schneider, Julian Shore contributed “Give,” Ryan Anselmi wrote “Paola,” and “Cotton” was composed by James Davis. 

As for the results ... well, if you check the definition of descriptors such as class, smooth, sensitivity and inventiveness, you’ll probably find a photograph of this quartet. These folks produce some of the best modern jazz I’ve heard in years. Reviewing this combo was a genuine pleasure, and it’ll be my continued pleasure to replay this CD again and again.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Peter Lerner: Continuation

Origin Arts
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Continuation

Technology has impacted jazz in a particularly nifty way, by allowing artists and groups to produce their own music with considerable ease. They no longer have to sell themselves to record producers, in order to make their efforts available to the buying public; they can record, manufacture and distribute their own music. As a result, we’re increasingly exposed to musicians who may be appreciated in specific cities or states, but remain unknown outside those areas. The term “territory artists” has described such players for decades.
Origin Records is one of few name companies to concentrate on these relative 'unknowns', and this album features some of the fine musicians who have made their home or operational base in Chicago, Illinois. Jazz guitarist Peter Lerner is a household name there, as are the individuals who support him on this album.
Lerner was turned on to jazz at an early age by Jimmy Hendrix and Stanley Turrentine; the latter's recording of “Sugar,” with George Benson on guitar, set his musical compass. Lerner earned his bachelor’s degree in music from Chicago’s American Conservatory of Music, and has worked as a musician, composer and arranger ever since. He has performed with many of the greats and near-greats, and is a constant fixture in Chicago’s numerous jazz venues. His normal group is usually a trio or quartet, but for this release he expanded to an octet. 
The pianist is jazz icon Willie Pickens, who at age 83 remains a fantastic artist. Bassist Marlene Rosenberg is the album’s surprise star, at least to me; as the saying goes, she owns her instrument. Her beat is as solid as I've heard in years, and her technique is exquisite. Drummer Charles “Rick” Heath IV completes the solid rhythm section. The additional instrumentalists include Geof Bradfield on saxes and flute, Victor Garcia on flugelhorn, Andy Baker on trombone, and Joe Rendon on percussion. 
Six of the nine tracks were composed and arranged by Lerner; the exceptions are Grant Green’s “Jean De Fleur,” Kenny Dorham’s “La Mesha” and “When Sonny Gets Blue,” written by Fisher/Seigel, and arranged by Pickens. The style is straight-ahead jazz, with a genre for everyone: bop, funk, Latin and gospel. 

This is a very enjoyable group, whose members play cohesively and swingingly.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Matt Criscuolo: blippity blat

Jazzeria Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: blippity blat

Matt Criscuolo leads two lives. In Connecticut, he’s probably better known as a businessman, since he owns several restaurants. But as a musician, this self-released album is his fourth as a leader. His instrument is alto sax; for this album, he fronts a quintet consisting of piano (Larry Willis), bass (Gerald Cannon), drums (Billy Williams) and — somewhat unexpectedly — French horn (John Clark).
Criscuolo and his fellow players composed all but one of these 10 tunes; the sole exception is a truly beautiful rendition of George Gershwin’s “My Ship.” Followers of this blog know that I’m partial to performances of standards from the Great American Songbook, because it allows for comparisons with other artists who have played the same songs.  
This handling of “My Ship,” by itself, sufficiently demonstrates the group’s excellence. (And I’m enjoying the other tracks, as well!)
Criscuolo's tone is soft and expressive and, when blended with the French horn, produces an easy-on-the-ears melodic line. You’ll thoroughly enjoy listening to this combo; the sound is so smooth that it likely would stifle frivolous conversation around the table of any jazz club where these guys would perform.

And I’d love to be at one of those tables.

The Puppeteers: The Puppeteers

Puppets Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: The Puppeteers

This quartet comprises pianist Arturo O'Farrill, vibraphonist Bill Ware, bassist Alex Blake and drummer Jaime Affoumado. The unit is relatively new, this being its debut release, but the individual members have established their own careers. 
Arturo O'Farrill is the son of Chico O'Farrill, the trumpeter, composer and arranger who was key to the development of Afro-Cuban jazz from the 1950s through the ’90s. Arturo played in his father’s bands and, eventually, took over as leader after Chico retired.
The New Jersey-born Ware also grew up in the Latin jazz world but, over time, moved into the straight-ahead and bop genres. Blake was born in Panama, moved to the States at age 7, and developed his skills in the fusion, post-bop and straight-ahead genres. At 62, he’s the oldest member of this group. 
Affoumado initially became known as a skateboard expert, and was talented enough to earn the nick-name “Puppeteer.” He also played drums; eventually, jazz became his primary activity. He, O'Farrill, Blake and Ware played extensively at a Brooklyn-based jazz club that became known as Puppet’s Jazz.
This album is excellent. The style has been identified by some as “fresh jazz,” although you’ll also detect hard bop, funk, Latin and straight-ahead genres. Actually, the term fresh best refers to the performances and quality of the music, along with the musicians’ composing and arranging skills. All but one of these tracks is original: Blake contributed “On the Spot,” “Jumping”Peaceful Moment”; Ware is responsible for “Bio Diesel,” “Lonely Days Are Gone” and “The Right Time”; O'Farrill wrote “In Whom”; and “Dreams of Dad” came from Affoumado. “Not Now Right Now” is by guest composer Popo Vasquez.
Everything swings brightly and smoothly, with particular accolades going to Blake and his bass work. He holds it all together, and his solos are uniquely moving; he often hums the melodic lines as he plays them, and the effect is a real groove.

This one’s a don’t-miss, and I eagerly await the next opportunity to be “strung along” by these Puppeteers.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Jim Olsen Ensemble: We See Stars

OA2 Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: We See Stars

Even though Jim Olsen lives and works in my neck of the woods, I wasn’t the least bit familiar with him. He plays flute and sax, composes and arranges, and has been doing so for more than 30 years. He has been associated with the Eastman School of Music, Kansas University, the University of Denver, Indiana University and ensembles throughout the state of Oregon. He served for 15 years as music director of The Swing Shift Orchestra, a Eugene-based big band, and currently is an artist-in-residence at the Springfield Academy of Arts and Academics.

Olsen has worked with, and composed for, numerous name artists; several are members of the ensemble featured on this release. Bobby Shew (trumpet and flugelhorn) and Dick Oates (alto and soprano sax) are among the better known. The rest are Dana Heitman (also trumpet and flugelhorn) and trombonist Glenn Bonney; a reed section of Hashem Assadullahi and Lynn Baker (alto, soprano, tenor); pianist John Harmon, bassist Andrea Niemiec, drummer Jason Palmer and percussionist Mike Snyder. Olsen joins the reed  section on flute.

All the tunes are originals, both swingers and ballads. Whatever the style, they're all a pleasure to hear. 

As I’ve noted previously, much of today’s jazz is more sophisticated and complex than what we heard, back in the day. The reasons are varied: Most of the musicians are college graduates who have received training in composition, which has made them more interested in harmonics. Many began as classical artists, then grew into the jazz culture.  They’re not merely better trained; they’re smarter and more ambitious than those who lived and grew up in the last half of the 20th century. As a result, the music they produce is much more “grown up.”

This ensemble is excellent, and I’m almost ashamed to admit that it took me so long to find it! 

The Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra: The L.A. Treasures Project

Capri Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: The L.A. Treasures Project

We could choose from many great jazz orchestras during the big band days, and most of them featured vocalists who became as famous as the groups with whom they worked. Remember the days when you could catch them at ballrooms, theater stage shows and jazz clubs, and in movies? Sadly, as time passed, the costs associated with large orchestras (and famous singers) became prohibitive; dancing became less popular; and jazz-related entertainment was packaged in smaller doses at smaller  venues. 

Concert halls and festivals replaced ballrooms, and road tours disappeared almost completely; albums and DVDs took their place. That said, musicians occasionally have formed “special” groups to deliver and record a few concerts. Once in awhile, such units would become popular enough to carry on for years. The Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra (CHJO) is one such organization.

It came to life in 1985, thanks to drummer Jeff Hamilton and brothers John (bass) and Jeff Clayton (sax). Their interpretation of “big” was truly big: five trumpets/flugelhorns, four trombones, five saxes and woodwinds, and a rhythm section of piano, bass, guitar and drums. The individual members have varied over time, but Hamilton and the Claytons have remained a constant. Let it be said: The CHJO is the best big band orchestra in existence today.

This particular release is made special by the inclusion of two vocalists: Ernie Andrews and Barbara Morrison. Andrews was born in 1927, Morrison in 1950; both are jazz icons.  Almost all of this album’s tunes feature vocals by these two artists, and their treatment is wonderfully bluesy. It brings back memories of decades past.

These 13 tracks include both old and new melodies, and everything swings like crazy! Too much time has passed since I’ve heard the likes of “Beautiful Friendship,” “Time after Time” and “I Ain't Got Nothin' but the Blues.” 

Hamilton, simply put, is the best drummer working, for organizations of any size. Back in the day, the drummer always was key in the swingingest bands. And I’m not thinking only of his ability to solo; Hamilton drives his wonderful band, and hits every emphasis. He’s a master.

This album reminds me of the  time when the patrons wouldn’t dance; they’d gather around the stage and just listen to the band. The CHJO is that kind of orchestra.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Leslie Pintchik: In the Nature of Things

Pinch Hard Music
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: In the Nature of Things

I was introduced to this performer while reviewing an earlier album — We’re Here to Listen — about three years ago. She was good then, and she’s better now. 

Pintchik began as a literature teacher at Columbia University, then became a jazz pianist and composer; I described her style at that time as “genteel jazz.” Well, she’s less genteel now, and swings a lot more.

This album features a sextet: Pintchik is backed by an alto and soprano saxophonist, trumpet/flugelhornist, bassist, drummer and another percussionist. Eight of the nine tracks are her own; the only standard is Lerner & Lowe’s “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” That tune is done as a ballad, as are many of her originals; the remaining up-tempo swingers demonstrate how far she has moved into a style that truly burns. She has left the Marion McPartland approach behind, currently resides Bill Carrothers’ neighborhood, and is approaching early Bill Evans. 

Pintchik has a delicate touch on the keyboard, a characteristic that’s particularly effective on the tempos she seems to favor. She also has a style that intermixes single-note melodic lines with chords played with both hands, following the same lines she initially established with that expressive right hand. It’s a technique that forces a listener’s attention; you always want to hear what she’s going to play next.

Her previous albums have utilized smaller groups (trios and quartets). She has increased the instrumentation to include reed and brass horns on this release; that expands the complexity of her compositions and arrangements, which I find quite pleasing. 

So far, she limits her performances to New York City and closely surrounding areas. Tell you what: I promise to go back to school, for a remedial course in English literature, if she’ll broaden her arena to include some venues on the West Coast!